Validating My Seat at the Table

“We as students, and people of marginalized communities, belong at the table.”

The idea of belonging is something I’ve struggled with for years. From my lived experiences, growing up as an Asian American and Filipino American low-income student often made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. But recently I was able to participate in a Student Voices Session at the U.S. Department of Education with Secretary John King, Jr. – and it helped me validate myself, and begin the process of understanding that I do belong.

During the session I joined six other students for a panel discussion, where we pair shared and dialogued around our experiences with federal financial aid. We also uplifted our personal narratives as minority students across racial, ethnic, class identities and more. Many drew on ideas of familiarity and of community in accessing resources to pay for college, whether it was through on-campus clubs, local libraries, or families.

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Finding My Voice and Sharing My Story with Secretary King

Jamie Talley (in white), a NAEHCY scholarship recipient, sharing her views with Secretary King.

Jamie Talley (in white) is a NAEHCY scholarship recipient.

My name is Jamie Talley, I am a National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) scholarship recipient. I experienced homelessness, and I work every day to make myself someone different than the family I was born into.

I was blessed with the opportunity to go to Washington D.C., with other NAEHCY scholars. There is one moment that I will remember forever.

You’ve been given the opportunity to sit at the table and make a difference, so make it count.

That moment was when it actually dawned on me just what was taking place. These may not have been his exact words, but this was the point Sam Ryan, Special Assistant and Youth Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education, was making just before Secretary John B. King, Jr., entered the room.

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Making the Impossible Possible as a Migrant Student

Blog author Yesenia Solis. (Photo courtesy the author)

Blog author Yesenia Solis. (Photo courtesy the author)

Months ago, traveling to Washington, D.C., seemed unbelievable to me, but recently this is exactly what I did. I am a rising senior from Avenal, California, and I want to someday be part of the government to make a change. So, thanks to the Ivy League Project – a program that encourages economically disadvantaged students to apply to the most prestigious universities in America – I was able to travel across the country to visit the Department of Education and several famous schools along the East Coast.

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Students Share College Completion Journeys

Students from a variety of socio-economic and racial backgrounds discussed the idea of belonging during this Student Voices Session. (Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

Students from a variety of socio-economic and racial backgrounds discussed the idea of belonging during this Student Voices Session. (Joshua Hoover/U.S. Department of Education)

“If you feel like you belong, you can achieve anything.”

This was the overarching sentiment expressed by many students during the latest Student Voices session, which focused on college completion at Minority Serving Institutions.

Both Secretary John King and Under Secretary Ted Mitchell were on hand to listen and engage students from a variety of socio-economic and racial backgrounds around the idea of belonging.

Many students present expressed a concern about the general lack of support from school counselors and said this made them feel as though they didn’t belong at college.

Other students said it was one unique relationship – whether with a teacher or professor – that enabled them to attend and complete college because this individual took the time to listen, work alongside them and help them navigate the system.

One Native student said she felt misunderstood and taken advantage of because her high school counselor took it for granted that she would be able to fill out the online FAFSA application without realizing that she lacked access to resources such as wi-fi.

As a DACA student myself at this session, I recalled how college personnel sent me to one office after another with disjointed pieces of advice when I was attempting to find resources to pay my tuition.

Hearing these concerns about the need to improve school and college advising, Secretary King emphasized how the Department of Education is trying to share best practices with universities to better support undocumented students. He also said that ED is attempting to increase funding to prepare more school counselors.

Evan Sanchez, another undergraduate at the session, explained that he thinks college personnel should alter their advising schedules to better meet the needs of working or non-traditional students who are juggling multiple responsibilities.

Joanna DeJesus, a CUNY Macaulay Honors College student, recommended more purposeful communication across departments so that students do not receive conflicting advice.

Finally, the students agreed on the importance of universities to exert greater efforts in aiding students beyond college, such as assisting with job placements and providing financial literacy guidance.

The session itself, which was only supposed to last 30 minutes, continued for more than an hour. The fact that Secretary King stayed to listen to everyone’s stories demonstrated how much he valued our perspectives and diverse experiences. It is not everyday that there are Native, Asian-origin undocumented, Black, and Latina and Latino students engaging in the same conversation.

I think it’s important to recognize that educational policy decisions cannot be made without student input since it directly affects us. Secretary King ensured that our voices were not only heard, but that we felt like belonged in such a space to be able to share our personal journeys and recommendations.

Syeda Raza is an E3! Ambassador at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Student Leaders Impacted by Gun Violence Seek to Make a Positive Change

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Recently, eight students who have been affected by gun violence came to ED to share their experiences with Secretary Duncan and his staff.,They were from all across the country and had experienced gun violence in different ways. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room as each shared their ordeals with either a mass shooting, personal injury as a result of an attack, or perpetual gun violence in their communities. Their recommendations on how to mitigate gun violence varied from mental health supports and job opportunities, to after school supports and youth engagement.

Kristina Anderson, survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, urged an increased investment in mental health clinics in high schools and college, along with campaigns to de stigmatize mental health so youth feel comfortable getting the support they need. Other youth talked about the need for high-quality afterschool programs. Da’lonte Moore, a middle school student from Baltimore, said students need opportunities, internships and positive role models to expose youth to real job training.

When pressed further on the issue by Michael Smith, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Cabinet Affairs for My Brother’s Keeper, one student said lack of transportation is another challenge, because students don’t have a reliable way to get to and from the programs. Trevon Simmons, a student at Luke C Moore Alternative High School, shared that in his community, a police station replaced the local Boys and Girls Club after dwindling enrollment because he and his peers couldn’t get their safely.

The need for youth to be active participants in their schools and communities was a constant theme throughout the meeting. The youth made it clear they wanted to be a voice in their schools and communities and to be a more engaged partner in shaping them to be safe and supportive places. One suggested way to accomplish this is for principals, school district superintendents and mayors to create student advisory councils where a broad representation of that population is included to improve outcomes for youth.

These youth have taken the pain and struggle that no human being should have to endure and turned it into a positive force to address gun violence at its root causes. Secretary Duncan’s first words to the students were “We have failed you as adults. We must not be complacent with this horrific status quo. It is our job as adult allies to support youth leaders in this endeavor.”

Sessions like this are a positive step in the right direction.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Samuel Ryan is a Special Assistant and Youth Liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Unique Mentoring Program Helps Students Build Confidence and Learn Valuable Skills

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Student athletes from Urban Squash spoke with Secretary Duncan about how they can use sports for leadership development and academic success.

Recently, ED invited student athletes from Urban Squash to speak about how they can use sports for leadership development and academic success. The organization is a youth development program that combines the sport of squash with academics, mentoring, community service, and college placement for public school students in under-served communities.

Unanimously, the students expressed that being involved in the sport has made them more confident to speak up, taught them what it means to respect and help each other as a team and inspired them to make changes in their community. They also spoke about the difference it made to their academic and personal growth and how empowering it was to be part of something, “larger than ourselves.”The student athletes encouraged everyone – regardless of neighborhood or background – to get involved with community building opportunities inside and outside of school. These activities are not limited to sports teams. They identified programs in their neighborhoods geared to support youth such as non-profit organizations, community service, internships and even employment opportunities.

While most of these programs welcome students with open arms, the students acknowledged the challenge that often goes along with finding out about these opportunities. To promote accessibility and diversity in these programs, they recommended expanding outreach to a more diverse population.. As a sport that is still largely outside the mainstream, the issues of awareness and diversity are even more pressing in squash.

Ultimately, these afterschool associations serve as a cultural program to connect different students and inspire them to advance their goals. It also gives them a chance to learn from each other by working in a team with diverse backgrounds and interests. Program participants are committed to making the most out of these educational opportunities – both on and off the court – to better themselves and their communities. As one student explained, “We are student athletes but the student part comes first”Squash is an indoor racket sport played by more than 15 million people in 153 countries. Until recently, it was played almost exclusively at prep schools, elite colleges, and exclusive clubs in the United States. Thanks in large part to programs like Urban Squash the sport has become more popular in recent decades. Because of its strong link to top-tier educational institutions, it has become an effective after-school program “hook.”

Hannah Pomfret was a 2015 summer intern at the U.S. Department of Education.

Young Native Americans Share School Culture Experiences with Secretary Duncan

During the session, students discussed the importance of school culture. (U.S. Department of Education)

During the session, students discussed the importance of school culture. (U.S. Department of Education)

While many students face challenges when it comes to growing up and pursuing academic success, Native American and Alaskan Native youths are more likely than most of their peers to experience poverty and trauma, and to drop out of high school. Their school environment has a significant role in their development.

This is just one of the reasons why ED recently invited 15 young Native Americans to attend a Student Voices Session with Secretary Duncan.

This session was also a capstone to ED’s first-ever School Environment Listening Tour, a nine-city tour in seven states designed to identify the impact of school environment on young Native Americans.

During the session here at ED, the students expressed their great need for cultural and personal support.

“When native students have a space for cultural continuity in an educational setting, they are tremendously more successful,” commented Laree, a Lakota and Oglala undergraduate student from Wisconsin.

Blue and Kele, siblings from Oklahoma, are members of the Cherokee Nation and of Osage and Choctaw descent. They stressed the significance of their participation in Operation Eagle, a cultural and community group for native youths. Despite the existence of programs like this, however, they highlighted the fact that education about their culture needs to extend beyond their native community.

Blue recalled from one community event that, “volunteers came in wearing headdresses and paint on their faces … one kid had a Halloween costume of a native American. … They need to teach the kids that not everyone has a headdress; you have to earn everything … I just think it would be better to have them learn.”

Autumn, a high school student from the Pokagan Band of Potawatomi Indians, described a similar experience. Her high school mascot is the chieftain – an offensive Native American caricature – and the derogatory term “wahoo” is used for the yearbook and school dances. While these harmful images had caused many of her native friends to lose interest in school or drop out, Autumn said that she couldn’t really be mad. “It’s not [non-native students’] fault – they’ve been programmed to think we are savages by the history they’re taught.” Autumn agreed that a more inclusive history should be taught to all students.

This Student Voices session was a capstone to ED’s first-ever School Environment Listening Tour, a nine-city tour in seven states designed to identify the impact of school environment on young Native Americans. (U.S. Department of Education)

This Student Voices session was a capstone to ED’s first-ever School Environment Listening Tour, a nine-city tour in seven states designed to identify the impact of school environment on young Native Americans. (U.S. Department of Education)

When Secretary Duncan asked the students about how to increase college access and make learning relevant for Native American and Alaskan Native youths, they opened up with recommendations that included cultural programs, tutors and career counselors, more accurate history curricula, and increased college affordability. There was consensus among the students that creating a supportive school culture should start with principals and teachers modeling culturally sensitive behaviors.

Referring to the need for recognition of Native culture within schools, Benton, of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, the youngest of the group at only six years old, concluded, “It matters, my tribe is important.”

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department through which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Samuel Ryan is a Special Assistant and Youth Liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Student Voices Session: Shining a Spotlight on Native Youth in Foster Care

Youth from every ethnicity and population group experience challenges. American Indian and Alaska Native youth in the foster care system often also must contend with a disconnection from their tribal communities and cultures.

On Dec. 8th, I attended a Student Voices session at the White House hosted by the Department of Education (ED) and Department of Interior. During this time, I witnessed the Obama Administration turn a corner on an issue that is too often invisible to the general public and politicians – understanding the plight of Native youth in foster care.

Fifteen current and former foster care youth representing American Indian and Alaska Native nations from across the United States sat down with Secretaries Arne Duncan and Sally Jewell/ (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

Blog author Seanna Pieper-Jordan (far right) joined fourteen other current and former foster care youth representing American Indian and Alaska Native nations from across the United States in a discussion with Secretaries Arne Duncan and Sally Jewell. (Photo credit: Paul Wood/U.S. Department of Education)

Fifteen current and former foster care youth representing American Indian and Alaska Native nations from across the United States sat down with Secretaries Arne Duncan and Sally Jewell at the event to discuss the unique struggles that Native youth face.

They all courageously shared stories of survival before entering foster care and of a heartbreaking desire to remain connected to their tribes when placed in foster homes far from their tribal communities. For me, their stories and my own share a key message — take us away from our homes and our culture, and you take us away from our identity and our drive to achieve.

After the meeting, Secretary Duncan asked how ED could help improve academic achievement and the well-being of Native youth in the foster care system.

With 566 federally recognized tribes—each with its own history, language and customs—no one curriculum plan or program can adequately provide the needed emotional, cultural and academic support for all Native youth. Fortunately, numerous tribes and tribal organizations desire a chance to partner with the government to improve the situation. My hope is that new tribal partnerships – specifically for American Indian and Alaska native foster youth – could make schools a safe and trusted alternative to the turmoil these students often encounter outside the school environment.

For me, school was my only haven, allowing me a few hours each day to forget the abuse and neglect I suffered in my most formative years. But, unfortunately, my educational experience is not the norm. My teachers did not address my behavioral problems, frequent absences from school, and lack of foundational skills, such as phonics, because I was always the brightest student in class. I also had thick skin to the racism I experienced in public school. Being Native Hawaiian, as well as American Indian, enabled me to attend Kamehameha Schools, a K-12 boarding-and-day institution that immerses students in Native Hawaiian culture. Kamehameha became my advocate, protector and family. Eventually, my school counselor became my foster mother.

I know firsthand that educational institutions can be not only a source of academic and emotional support for all students with unfortunate circumstances at home, but also a place of cultural opportunity for American Indian and Alaska Native youth disconnected from their tribal communities. So, I am happy to say that my time at the White House and with Secretaries Duncan and Jewell has shown me that the Administration is searching for new ways to improve the lives of Native foster youth. And, more personally, it showed me that people do care about what happens to the invisible.

Seanna Pieper-Jordan is a former foster care youth of Native Hawaiian and American Indian (Blackfeet) descent. She graduated from Yale University with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Sociology in 2013 and Kamehameha High School with honors in 2008. She currently works as a public policy specialist in Washington, D.C.

Doing it for Me: A U.S. Department of Education Documentary Screening and Panel Discussion on Personal Struggle and Supporting Youth

School dropouts are saddled with so many preconceptions. The popular narrative is that they are either lazy, they give up, or they simply don’t want to go to school.

To many students who decide to leave middle or high school, these stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth.

Recently, the student-produced documentary Doing it for Me was screened at ED’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. The audience was given an intimate look into the personal story of D.C. high school dropout Precious Lambert, and learned how she got back on track and helped her two best friends – Victoria Williams and Jessica Greene – navigate tough life-altering decisions.

Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, panelists gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote successful learning. (Photo credit: Meridian Hill Pictures)

Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, panelists gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote successful learning. (Photo credit: Meridian Hill Pictures)

Following the screening, Leah Edwards, the film’s co-director; Jessica Greene, who is featured in the film; Maureen Dwyer, executive director of Sitar Arts Center; and former high school dropout and current alternative school student Cristian A. Garcia Olivera, participated in the panel discussion. Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, they gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote a successful learning environment.

Despite being in the top 2 percent of her high school class, Jessica lacked relationships with her teachers. “It was up to me to drive myself,” she explained. She believed there was a major problem in her education due to poor communication between students and teachers, and discovered that the only way to get back on track was to take personal responsibility.

Jessica found an outlet and a path to success at Sitar Arts Center, a local organization that advances life skills for underserved youth through holistic arts programs. Though she often denied her feelings at home, Jessica said, “At Sitar I could be me; I could let loose.”

Through the work of Sitar Arts Center, Maureen was able to show how the arts are essential to critical and creative thinking — and how arts education can help students at risk of dropping out persevere beyond school. This aligns with the National Endowment for the Arts research that show students with low socioeconomic status perform better when they are engaged in the arts, and are two times more likely to enroll in four-year colleges.

Christian said that when teachers show an interest in their students it can make a huge impact on their lives. He dropped out of his traditional school and is currently (and happily) enrolled in an alternative school. “At alternative schools the teachers are really nice. The classes are really small, with only 20 kids per class, and . . . teachers teach you in a way to get to know you better,” he said.

Getting a second chance can make all the difference in the world for students like Precious, Victoria, Jessica and Christian. An audience member summed up his understanding of the film’s powerful message: “If you’ve made the bad choice, you can still fix it.”

Watch the entire discussion on ED Stream.

This event was a part of the ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session program, aimed at providing U.S. Department of Education staff and stakeholders with student perspectives on educational policy issues.

Samuel Ryan is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.

Secretary Duncan Hears From Veterans on Challenges to College Success

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Secretary Duncan recently met with student veterans. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

How do we as a country provide supports on college campuses for veterans and ensure they have access to high-quality education at an affordable price? This question helped focus a Student Voices Session that recently took place with Secretary Duncan in Washington, D.C. The goal of the conversation was to understand the issues student veterans face, identify institutions of higher education that are providing comprehensive supports, and take action at the local, state, and federal levels.

The Obama administration is encouraging institutions to sign on to the 8 Keys to Veterans’ Success, a voluntary initiative through the Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs by which colleges and universities can support veterans as they pursue their education and employment goals. Already, over 1,000 schools have signed on to support service members in transitioning to higher education, completing their college programs, obtaining career-ready skills, and building toward long-term success.

Abby Kinch, a current Florida State University (FSU) student and former Air Force Cryptologic Linguist, spoke about FSU’s Veterans Center, which provides veterans with a one-stop shop for on-campus support and a place to enhance their development as student leaders. Many of the students in attendance were impressed by the resources available for veterans at FSU and said they would like to see them replicated in their colleges and universities.

Franchesca Rivera, a former Marine and current Art Institute of Washington student and certifying official, passionately spoke about the need for transparency with regard to the cost of college, what the GI Bill will actually cover, and what student veterans should expect to pay. Rivera mentioned that, while most schools serving veterans have a dedicated VA certifying official, the people in this position have a high level of turnover and therefore it is hard to get accurate information.

Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Allison Hickey responded that the VA partially covers the school’s reporting costs and that her office will look into how these positions are trained to ensure certifying officials have the knowledge needed to assist veterans pursuing higher education. Additionally, she notes that the VA has just released a more robust GI Bill Comparison Tool, which will help students find the best programs that fit their needs.

As the secretary was discussing follow-up opportunities, Samuel Innocent, a senior at the City College of New York, suggested that the Student Veterans of America and other student-led veterans’ chapters could create a nationwide student survey to provide tangible feedback on schools’ services for veterans, and on state and federal assistance programs. The goal of the survey would be to strengthen what works and re-tool programs that are not having desired outcomes for meeting veterans’ needs.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department in which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies. 

Samuel Ryan is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education

Students Who Have Beaten the Odds Share Their Stories with the Secretary

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Secretary Duncan and members of the most recent Student Voices session. From left to right: Darius Wesley, Jordan Roberts, Juan Montano, Rachel Scott, Michella Raymond, Deja Chapman, Tenzin Choenyi, Julia Jent, Kristen Fraenig, Anthony Mendez, and Dr. Freeman Hrabowski (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The move from middle school to high school is exciting for some students, but can be incredibly difficult for others. Some students require intensive support to stay on the path to graduation, and that support can take many different forms.

That was the sentiment expressed by Secretary Arne Duncan during a recent session of Student Voices, where young people from across the country gather and chat with senior ED staff about what it’s like to be a student in America today.

Darius was one of the 10 students who attended and, for him, this transition was almost insurmountable. His mother suffered a severe stroke and went into a deep coma during his freshman year of high school, forcing him and his siblings to move to the far south side of Chicago. On top of coping with the emotional and physical strain of his mother’s condition, because he was forced to move, he had to wake up at 4 a.m. to get to school every day, and he often stayed late for basketball practice, which took a toll on his academics. He explained, “tiredness grew over me and teachers berated me for not paying attention in class. I didn’t want to let my mother down, and as I felt alone in this situation, basketball was my stress reliever.” His coach noticed that Darius needed more support, so he offered to give him rides to school and eventually invited him to live with him. After a few months with his coach he moved in with a friend and this experience altered the course of his life.

Darius will be attending Southern Vermont College in the fall, where he has received a Mountaineer Scholarship.  Darius has become empowered to take control of his future knowing that he can overcome any obstacles he may encounter in college. Darius still continues to struggle to keep his family together but feels his success is what’s needed to keep them all together.

Rachel, a student from Washington State, told Secretary Duncan that as one of five children growing up on a farm, she also faced seemingly insurmountable challenges.

After losing her mother, she moved into the foster care system. Rachel told Duncan that “constant moving created gaps in my learning. I can do advanced math, but because of the lapses in primary education, some of the basic middle school stuff troubles me.” Luckily, she explained, she was able to eventually stay with her aunt, who became her main source of support. Once she settled into life with her aunt, things changed. During her high school career, she took advanced placement math and sciences and worked twenty hours a week at her family’s restaurant. This fall, she will attend the University of Washington to study Marine Biology and Ocean Sciences.

After hearing from several other students, Secretary Duncan then asked all of the attendees to think about who or what helped them to beat the odds and graduate high school. The students agreed that strong mentors and role models, high expectations, and relevant college information made the strongest impacts.

Do you have a unique story to tell? We would like to hear made a difference in your life and education or for the youth in your community. Please send your story to youth@ed.gov.

This session was a part of the ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department, in which students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies

Samuel Ryan is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education

Duncan Invites Student Feedback on College Access and Affordability

Student Voices Session

Students from the Washington, DC, metro area met with Secretary Duncan to discuss college access and affordability.

At a recent convening at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan turned to a group of student experts for answers to the college accessibility, affordability, and completion challenges America faces today. The 15 high school and college students – who brought their firsthand knowledge to the Student Voices session from D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — identified key improvements to the college application process throughout a conversation with Secretary Duncan and Under Secretary Martha Kanter.

While the national conversation often focuses on the cost of college courses, books, and housing, one student said that expenses begin before setting foot on a college campus. “I’ve already spent a lot of money just applying to colleges,” said the student.

Another student said that the Department should standardize and publicize fee waivers so that students know waivers exist and apply for them.

The Secretary said that most students who fill out the FAFSA apply to just one school. “We have the best [higher education] system in the world and we think [students] should have choices,” said Duncan. “How do we get more students to comparison shop?”

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